5 Things Utah: Department merger, Mental health, Rx policy discussion

We held our 2021 Utah State of Reform Health Policy Conference last week, and learned a lot of very important, compelling things. We feature some of that for you below, but most of the key takeaways will stay with the 200+ folks in the “metaphorical” room with us last week. There was a tremendous amount of intel from some of the smartest folks in Utah health care and health policy.

So, with that, let’s get to the 5 Things we think are worth tracking for senior health care executives and health policy leaders for the month of April, 2022.





With help from Emily Boerger

1. Legislature “moved the needle” on mental health

Following the end of session in March, State of Reform Reporter Eli Kirshbaum caught up with Rep. Candace Pierucci who praised the legislature for its work in “moving the needle” on mental health supports in Utah this year. A 2020 ranking from Mental Health America ranked Utah 47th in the nation for prevalence of mental illness and 38th for access to mental health care. Pierucci said mental health was the number one concern for her constituents during the pandemic.

Gov. Spencer Cox signed a series of new mental health bills earlier this month including SB 155, a bill to create the Statewide Behavioral Health Crisis Response Account to support 988 services, HB 337, which focuses on preventive mental health treatment for children, and SB 41, which requires insurers to cover remote mental health visits under certain conditions.


2. Gruber discusses department merger

Tracy Gruber, Executive Director of the Utah Department of Human Services, says the state is prepared to take on its ambitious, recently passed plan to integrate DHS with the Utah Department of Health. I recently had the opportunity to discuss the road ahead with Gruber, where she said the “robust transition” will lead to a more inclusive public health system.

She also described how the state will navigate the difficulties of the merger such as the integration of contracts and the coordination of the “complex web of funding streams.” Sen. Michael Kennedy also touched on the merger in a conversation with me, saying “government can always be more efficient.”

3. 69% of uninsured Utahns eligible for Medicaid or ACA subsidies

According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation analysis, nearly 70% of the uninsured individuals in Utah are already eligible for Medicaid/other public assistance or are eligible for ACA subsidies. Broken down, 37% qualify for Medicaid/CHIP and other public programs, and 32% qualify for subsidized ACA coverage.

The analysis takes into account the expanded subsidy structure put in place through the American Rescue Plan Act, which KFF estimates has increased the number of people eligible for subsidized Marketplace coverage by 20%. The analysis also finds that 16% of Utah’s uninsured are ineligible for financial assistance due to citizenship.


4. Utah leaders talk Rx drug policy

Prescription drug importation, bulk purchasing programs, upper pricing limits  — all of these were discussion topics at a panel on prescription drug policy innovation at the 2021 Utah State of Reform Health Policy Conference last week. Danny Harris, Director of Advocacy at AARP Utah, said the majority of his organization’s members support a wide variety of policy solutions to high Rx prices. He listed international reference pricing as an example, which would use Rx prices in other countries to compare U.S. prices and create upper pricing limits.

Steve Schultz, Director of State Legislative Affairs for the Arthritis Foundation, discussed the increased use of accumulator adjustment programs, which prevent copay assistance from counting toward patients’ deductibles or maximum out-of-pocket expenses for prescriptions. Video of the full conversation is available here.


5. Experts discuss health equity & COVID

At last week’s conference, Christine Espinel, Health Program Specialist for the UDOH Office of Health Disparities, shared data which showed Hispanic and Latino Utahns account for 20.5% of COVID cases, despite making up 14.6% of the state’s population. Espinel shared data from April 13 which also showed American Indian/Native Alaskan and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander groups as having the highest rates hospitalizations and fatalities.

Mikelle Moore at Intermountain Healthcare discussed the equity lens Intermountain is using to address COVID. The organization’s efforts include utilizing community health workers to build vaccine trust in underserved communities. Dr. José Rodríguez at U of U Health, told attendees that Utah needs to “invest more money earlier” into the health infrastructure of underserved communities so they’re better equipped to handle future health crises.